Monday, 29 June 2020

Whitechapel Road - The Working Lads' Institute


It's interesting that we can walk past a building hundreds of times without really noticing it and then one day it catches the eye. I must have walked past the former Working Lads' Institute on Whitechapel Road hundreds, possibly thousands of times but only recently noticed it. It stands next to the main and currently closed entrance to Whitechapel Underground Station, a six storey red brick building, completed in 1885. Designed by Scottish architect George Baines, the facade features Portland and Ancaster stone dressings and a three sided Oriel window flanked by additional bay windows at first floor level. It was formally opened to great fanfare by the Prince and Princess of Wales on 31st October 1885. The Illustrated London News reported that "despite the rain which continued throughout the day, there was an immense assemblage of people along the roadway through which the Royal party had to pass".

The Institute began life as an organisation in 1878, in Mount Place, also in Whitechapel, and was founded by Henry Hill, a successful merchant in the City of London. Hill's objective was "to supply a counter attraction to the low music halls and other east end resorts for the young which are so fatal to their social and moral well-being". To this end a library, lecture hall, classrooms, laundry, kitchen, gymnasium and swimming baths were provided for the area's young working class men. The lecture hall could accommodate up to 600 people and boasted stained glass windows with representations of art, religion and industry as well as nine semi-circular lights with images of the seasons and sports. The main facilities were advertised by the words Lecture Hall, Gymnasium and Swimming Bath carved in stone above the two entrances at street level on Whitechapel Road. It was these signs that finally drew my attention to the building and led me to notice the much larger Working Lads' Institute sign emblazoned across the full width of the building at the upper level. How did I ever miss it? 

The total cost of the project was £12,000, a significant sum for the time. Hill did not manage to raise all of the required capital before construction started and so the works were completed in two phases. He managed to secure additional funds from Reverend Thomas Jackson who ran an Evangelical Mission in Clapton and had a history of working with the poor. Jackson was to have a long association with the Institute and eventually purchased the building in 1896, saving it from the threat of closure due to a constant lack of funds.  He was influential in increasing the organisation's work with young homeless men. From the beginning, accommodation was offered for those in need with an initial 24 beds and space to expand to 60. Additional beds were made available to young men aged 17-21 including some who were referred by the courts with Jackson sometimes acting as probation officer. However, it is important to note that not all of those who made use of the hostel had been involved in criminal activity and that some would have committed what would be considered very minor offences today.

As well as providing education, leisure and refuge to young men, the Institute occasionally hosted other activities, including in 1888 the inquests into the deaths of Mary Ann Nicholls (also known as Polly Nicholls) and Annie Chapman, two victims of the Whitechapel Murderer.  

The Institute no longer operates from Whitechapel Road and has been renamed the Whitechapel Mission. The building now contains a number of flats with retail units at ground floor level. The facade was restored in 2012 as part of a wider improvement project linked to the London Olympics. This online edition of Spitalfields Life includes pictures of some of the lads who attended activities or lived there as well as of one of the stained glass windows. It also makes reference to the Institute being one of the first organisations of its type to admit Black men and includes a photograph of Reverend Jackson with a group of Black soldiers at the time of the First World War. So much history in one building. 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

The Ahuja Family And Early Burmese Photography.

From 1824 to 1937, Burma (today's Myanmar) was ruled as part of British India. It was then governed as a separate entity until independence in 1948. During the colonial period, many Indians came to live, work and establish businesses in the country. It is estimated that there are over 900,000 people of Indian ethnicity living in Myanmar today, many of them the descendants of those who came in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ahuja family arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1885 when D.A. Ahuja acquired the Kundandass and Co. photographic studio. There is a division of opinion about where the family came from. In his excellent book, Burmese Photographers, Lukas Birk suggests they came from Shikapur, Sindh in what is now Pakistan but at least one other source refers to them as Punjabis. 




1901 was an important year for the business. In addition to changing its name to the D.A. Ahuja Studio, our man published a guide to "Photography in Burmese for Amateur Photographers" and his nephew Tickamdas Naraindas Ahuja (T.N.) joined him from India. The studio thrived, attracting customers from the British community as well as from local families who came to be photographed or to buy cameras and photographic paper imported from India. The success of the business is demonstrated through the studio being located on the first floor of a building at 47 Sule Pagoda Road, in the heart of downtown Yangon. There is anecdotal evidence of the business surviving there until the 1960's.

Around 1906, D.A. acquired a number of pictures taken by German photographer Philip Adolphe Klier. The collection included architectural and highly stylised ethnographic pictures taken in different parts of Burma. Ahuja began publishing the pictures as postcards but there seems to have been some problem about how he acquired these works and in 1907, Klier took successful legal action against him. Losing the legal battle was only a temporary setback as in 1909 Ahuja purchased the archive of Italian photographer Felice Beato and also became the legal owner of Watts and Skeen, a studio established by Frederick Skeen in 1887. The Skeen family also had a photographic business in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Beato's archive included landscape works, stylised portraits and also war photography from Japan, China and the Middle East. Klier died in 1911 and from 1914, Ahuja resumed producing some of his pictures as postcards. He was to publish 600 cards over the next 20 years, some of which can be found at card sales or occasionally on eBay. The cards were sent to Germany to be chromo-lithographed, ensuring the best quality finishes.



The postcards cover a wide range of subjects. There are several studio shots of elegant women, slightly stiff looking family groups, important monuments, snake charmers and dancers. There is also at least one card showing prisoners in Rangoon jail queueing to collect their food which whilst fascinating is an unusual image to send to the family back home.

D.A.'s nephew, T.N. opened his own studio in 1916 with a shop at 86 Phayre Street (now Pansodan Road) where he operated as an agent for Kodak products. There is some evidence that he also served as magistrate. Business was interrupted in 1942 when the family fled before the arrival of the Japanese but they quickly returned to reopen the studio at the end of the war. In 1948 T.N.'s son, R.A. Ahuja opened another studio at 386 Dalhousie Road (now Maha Bandoola Road). The store became the sole agent in Burma for the sale of Gevaert products and operated until 2007. R.A. the last remaining member of the Ahuja family in Burma died in 2014, bringing almost 130 years of their presence in the country to an end. The date of D.A.'s death is unknown.

The images included in this post are from reprints of the cards I purchased from the Yangon Heritage Trust at 22-24 Pansodan Road in 2017. The Trust is a great source of information on Yangon's built heritage. As well as selling books, maps and postcards, it stages occasional exhibitions and guided walks.  I have a habit of buying postcards on my travels and then putting them "somewhere safe" when I get home. During the lockdown I have been sorting through my collection and rediscovered my Ahuja cards. I also turned back to the already mentioned  excellent book by Lukas Birk which has a short section on the Ahujas.  Birk is an accomplished traveller and photographer whose projects have included research into the now almost disappeared box cameras of Kabul. 




D.N. Ahuja also produced postcards featuring images from India, some of which may have been his won work. You can see some of them on the Paper Jewels website.

It is not possible to confirm which of the images featured in this post are the work of the Ahuja family or are from other photographer's archives.


You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Postcards From My Hometown - 2, The Bathing Pool

I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life in Redcar. I have fond memories of spending time in the area known as the Coatham Enclosure with its indoor swimming baths, boating lake and amusement arcade which included a large fairground ride known locally as the "mad mouse". These were the remnants of a much larger range of facilities constructed in the late 1920's when a major building programme funded by the local authority provided work for men made jobless after the General Strike of 1926. There were no state funded benefits at that time and rather than have families seek relief from the Guardians of the Poor Law, the Council established construction jobs with wages funded through the rates.


The original complex included an outdoor swimming facility called the Bathing Pool. It is astonishing to think that during the 1930's, Redcar's residents and visitors could benefit from three swimming pools. As well as the indoor baths, demolished in 1978, there were two outdoor facilities - a large one for adults and confident swimmers and a smaller, rectangular pool for children and learners. A small charge was levied, 4d for adults and 2d for children, whilst towels and swimwear could be hired at a small cost. Both pools were eventually closed. An outdoor roller skating rink was built over the larger one whilst the smaller one was built over to provide a car park for the indoor pool. I have vague memories of the closed skating rink and of trying to see over the surrounding wall with friends. This too is long gone.

The postcard featured in this piece shows an image of the Bathing Pool including swimmers, spectators and a daring diver launching himself from the highboard. When I bought the card my first thoughts were that this was an image of the Boating Lake due to the impressive buildings of Newcomen Terrace that can be seen in the background. However, a little online research and help from my brother soon uncovered the story of the long lost Bathing Pool. The site is now occupied by a youth facility know as The Hub. Whilst researching for this post I came across a couple of short films of Redcar in the 1930's the first of which includes some footage of a beauty contest at the Bathing Pool. You can see them here.

The card is post marked 8th July 1943 and was posted during the Second World War.  It was sent by one Nora to a Miss Jean Horn in Guildford, Surrey. Nora has written a chatty message saying she is on a course which apparently was "terribly stiff and means working all the time, night and day". She asks to be remembered to some friends and is anxious to make it clear that the picture on the card is from before the war "so don't think it is lovely here". She notes her temporary address on the card which suggests that Nora was in Redcar was connected to the R.A.F. so she may have served in the armed forces.

As with the card in my previous post, this one was purchased from the wonderful Saltburn Framing Company, located in Saltburn Station. More postcards coming soon.

You might also like Postcards From My Home Town 1 - The Beach, Redcar

Monday, 20 April 2020

Postcards From My Hometown - 1, The Beach, Redcar

When I travel I still like to send postcards. I know this is considered terribly old fashioned especially when Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and a host of other platforms offer the opportunity to immediately send a virtual postcard to scores of people. I also enjoy sharing news and pictures online but still think there's something special about receiving a hand written postcard addressed to me personally.


However sending postcards from abroad can sometimes be a challenge. A few years ago I bought some beautiful cards in Guatemala but then found that the country had suspended its postal service so I couldn't send them. I eventually posted them from Costa Rica where I had a short stopover on the way home. It felt a bit like cheating. On my first visit to the Philippines in 2016 I purchased some postcards in Vigan, a beautiful historic city and a World Heritage Site. I took them to the post office where I was greeted with a smile and the confusion as the staff explained that it was so long since anyone had sent postcards that they no longer had details of what to charge me. They very politely  told me that "everyone sends pictures home on their phone these days sir," before a nominal charge was decided and the cards handed over. 

I should explain that I don't send hundreds of cards but always try to find one for my elderly relatives, my grand daughters and one or two friends in different countries who I think will appreciate receiving them. I know my aunt has a collection of every card I have ever sent her and when my dad was alive he carefully steamed off the stamps so that he could add them to his collection. Speaking of collections I must admit that I have hundreds of postcards that I've bought at exhibitions, markets and even online. They cover a wide range of subjects - vintage advertising, Art Deco and art nouveau architecture, souvenirs from places I visited years ago and lots of those cards that art galleries sell to generate a little income. What do I do with them? They are useful research tools and sometimes come in useful for blogging but for the most part I keep them in boxes under my sofa and look at them perhaps once in a few years. Still,  I am loathe to be parted from them.

I recently bought some vintage cards from the Saltburn Frame Company, a great little gallery and framing shop inside Saltburn Station. All of them are historical views of my home town, Redcar. The first, at the top of this post is a beautiful image of fishing boats on the beach during low tide and of very stylish people strolling along the promenade or standing on the beach. The women wear long heavy skirts, the men are sporting boaters and even the boys wear caps. The woman with the white parasol standing on the beach and looking out to sea is especially elegant. Today the sea front is   quite run down but the image here shows that this was not always the case. The Royal Hotel, on the left hand side of the picture was once owned by the parents of actress June Laverick closed several years ago and has been converted into flats.

The rear of the card identifies this image as one of the famous Frith's series. Francis Frith was a pioneering photographer, born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire in 1822. He was a man of many talents. He became a founding member of the Liverpool Photography Society in 1853 (established just 14 years after the invention of the art), ran a major publishing business and was also the owner of a successful grocery store. Frith was prolific, producing not only a photographic record of Britain but also travelling extensively, practising his art in Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Syria. He died in 1898 and his photographic publishing company was taken over by his son and later by his grandson.  According to online data the picture at the top of this post, number 47993 was taken in 1901 so can't have been his own work. The postmark shows the card to have been sent at 5.30pm on July 20th but the year is not legible. The stamp bears an image of King George V whose reign ran from 1910 to 1936 but of course these stamps would have remained in circulation for some time after his death.

The card was sent to a woman called Hilda who lived not very far from Redcar in Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough. The writing is difficult to read, even with the help of a magnifying glass, but the sender reports that it is a lovely day, very hot albeit a little cloudy and that they had been outside from 10 am until 12.45. Unfortunately his or her name is illegible but the message reminds me of the things my relatives wrote on cards sent from Torquay and Bournemouth whilst I was growing up.

Look out for more postcards from Redcar coming soon!

Monday, 6 April 2020

Picture post 73 - Purim in Mea Shearim

On March 11th I was walking the streets of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, camera in hand, witnessing its Ultra Orthodox community celebrating Purim. A lot has happened since then and life has changed so much that rather than a few short weeks it seems like months ago. Two days later as the situation rapidly deteriorated with more and more cases of the coronavirus being reported and restrictions on movement and travel beginning to be implemented, I cut my trip short and came home. I had planned to write about my time in Mea Shearim soon after my return but I fell ill with the virus and was unable to do anything much for a couple of weeks. I am much better now and bit by bit am able to resume my normal activities.


Mea Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods outside the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. The name literally translates as one hundred gates but can also be understood as one hundred fold. Founded in 1874 it was funded through a partnership of 100 share holders who purchased land outside the old city in order to escape the poor sanitation and to live in a healthier environment. The contractors for the project were Yosef Rivlin a prominent member of the Jewish community who worked with a Christian Arab to construct a courtyard neighbourhood surrounded by a wall, the gates of which were locked every evening. 



Today the area is populated almost exclusively by different groups of Haredi, ultra-Orthodox Jews who strictly maintain religious laws, wear modest clothing and generally live separately from the the rest of society. This separation includes rejecting many aspects of modernity, including as a rule, photography. However on certain occasions it is possible to enter the neighbourhood to respectfully and discretely take pictures. However to is not acceptable to take portraits without permission and if people signal that they do not wish to be photographed it is my strong advice to respect that.

Purim is one of Judaism's happier festivals, celebrating the survival of the Jews in ancient Persia and the foiling of a plan to exterminate them. It is celebrated rigorously, almost riotously in  Mea Shearim. Many people take part in the tradition of wearing a disguise or costume, the many yeshivas (schools focusing on the study of religious texts) hold mass celebratory events in the presence of important rabbis and some of the men of this normally sober community indulge heavily in the consumption of alcohol.


As I walked the streets of the neighbourhood with a photographer friend we met with a variety of responses. Some people hurried away or covered their faces when they saw the cameras. One or two called al tetzalem b'mea Shearim - do not take pictures in Mea Shearim, whilst others were curious, wanted to talk a little and in some cases were happy for a portrait to be taken. Most interesting were some of the children who having seen us, would approach, not speaking but inviting us to admire their costumes and to photograph them by standing and posing in front of us, such as the boy in the clown suit pictured above. 



Perhaps the highlight of my time in Mea Shearim was spending an hour in a particular yeshiva where hundreds of Haredi men stood swaying, chanting and singing in the open air on bleacher style seating whilst the rabbis sat at an elevated table observing the proceedings. The singing could be heard several streets away, strong, loud and beautiful. Arriving in the grounds of the yeshiva I first entered a refectory where food and copious amounts of wine were laid out on a series of tables. Several of the men looked the worse for wear including boys perhaps as young as ten or eleven, some of them collapsed on the floor whilst others had over indulged so much that they were physically ill in the courtyard. One or two became very loud from the alcohol, dancing, falling and in some cases collapsing. In the midst of this I noticed a young man wearing an immaculate kaftan (coat) and cap who had perhaps the saddest eyes I have ever seen. Standing alone he seemed preoccupied and apart from the others. He is pictured at the top of this post.

Back in the streets we came across family groups on their way to visit relatives, the children all wearing costumes. Looking up we noticed many small children playing on balconies and watching the activity below with much interest. We also met Shmuel aged 12 who was looking after a bakery but was happy to pose for us. I asked him if the bakery belonged to his father. He said it didn't and that he didn't want to say who owned it. The residents of Mea Shearim are often suspicious of outsiders which probably explains his answer.

Back home and in lockdown, I have no idea when my next expedition will take place. In the meantime readers are welcome to follow my instagram account  or Flickr page. 





Sunday, 2 February 2020

Faces of Yangon

Yangon is one of those cities that tourists visit for a couple of days, go to the main attractions and then leave thinking they've seen everything. They are wrong. True, it may lack the sophistication of some major Asian cities, has little in the way of nightlife and its public transport system can be challenging. But none of this matters when there is something, or someone, interesting around every corner. The eclectic mix of architecture that includes Indian and Chinese influences, crumbling survivors of the colonial period and classic Burmese style pagodas is reflected in the diversity of the people, many of them happy to share their story with interested passers-by.

Buddhist monk on Yangon's Circle Line train
The best place to see this rich mix is of course in the streets, particualrly the numbered lanes that cross the main boulevards of the city centre. From 17th Street to the high 20's it is a good idea to look up and admire the many remaining shop-houses, some of them 100 years old. Built to accommodate a commercial purpose on the ground floor with a residential unit above they are beginning to fall victim to developers so go and see them now. Some have retained their wooden facades and in 19th street in particular there are a number of Clan Association buildings with Chinese signage and the occasional, live, fighting cock tethered outside. There are also numerous markets. 17th Street hosts a famous daily street market as does the upper end of 38th Street, both of them selling all kinds of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish as well as flowers, spices and other goods. The famous Bogalay Zay and Bogyoke markets are also worth a visit although the latter a little too touristy for me nowadays. Outside of the organised markets there are countless, often "informal" vendors selling snacks. fruit, household goods or offering various street side repair services.

Happy vendor, 17th Street
Waiting for customers, rickshaw driver, 14th Street
Interesting as the architecture and sale goods are, it is of course the people of Yangon that bring these streets to life and who hold a special attraction for me. They also make this one of the most photogenic locations I've ever visited and in general people are happy to pose for photographs. It is also relatively easy to take candid shots of the city's street life. One of the iconic sights of Yangon and Myanmar generally is the daily procession of Buddhist monks and nuns collecting donations of rice, other foods and sometimes money from the faithful who hope to gain merit from this good deed. I often find this to be can a moving sight as some of the nuns in particular are very young, many of orphans or from families too poor to look after them.

Breakfast in the San Pya fish market
Shy porter, Thiri Mingalar wholesale market
As well as walking the streets of Yangon, I enjoy visiting the huge wholesale markets located just a short distance from the city centre. The San Pya wholesale fish market and the vast Thiri Mingalar fruit, vegetable and flower market receive few foreign visitors.  So few that I don't recall seeing a single tourist during any of the visits I've made. The workers may be a little surprised to see a foreigner but are nonetheless very welcoming. In most cases they are too busy to spend much time talking but the workers are generally relaxed about being photographed. This makes up for the overpowering smell at San Pya which permeates everything and which will require you to send all of your clothes to the laundry after a visit!  Waterproof boots are also strongly advised if visiting.

This cheeky pair followed me around Thiri Mingalar until I took their picture
Worker with neck tattoos,  San Pya fish market
During my most recent time in Yangon, I had the privilege of visiting the neighbourhood of a good friend who I first met as a guide four years ago. Yuzana Garden City is about a thirty minute drive from the city centre. Primarily a residential area, it also has a large, busy market selling the usual food items and household goods. Until recently the market location was not busy as the vendors preferred to set up shop at the roadside. This may have been good for business but it prevented traffic from passing or in some cases even entering the streets. The local authority stepped in and there is now enforcement in place to prevent this behaviour - although it doesn't stop some vendors sneaking back to the street side in the afternoons!

As we walked through the market, people called out "hello"and "where are you from" - something that I have experienced in my travels in many countries, but here they also like to tease. The female vendors in particular have a good sense of humour, suggesting I might like to marry their friend or take them back to London with me. Several of them claimed me as their relative when neighbouring vendors expressed surprise at seeing me. My kind of humour. Here, not only were people happy to be photographed but some also requested me to take their pictures or those of their friends. I often find that when someone volunteers their friends for a picture, what they really mean is they want one of themselves but are too shy to ask. My hour or so in the market here passed very quickly and I am extremely grateful for the experience.


Herbs vendor, Yuzana Garden City
Snacks vendor, Yuzana Garden City
Rickshaw driver waiting for customers, Yuzana Garden City
I've written several times about the etiquette of photographing people in the street but it's worth mentioning a few things again. If I want to take a close-up or a more "formal" portrait, I always seek permission first. I wouldn't want someone to come up to me shove a camera in my face and then walk off. If I can I make efforts to talk to the person a little before requesting a picture. It's helpful to walk with someone local as they can interpret and also advise on any important issues that might not occur to an outsider. If I want to photograph children I always ask the parent or an adult accompanying them and I never photograph children who are alone. In markets I often buy something from a vendor first. This works better in some cases than in others. Buying a few pieces of fruit is not a problem and they can always be given to someone who needs them more than me. Fish, meat or live animals is a bit more of a problem! Obviously for candid shots things are a little different but it is still important to be sensitive and if someone says "no" or indicates they are unhappy with being photographed then accept this graciously and point your camera elsewhere. It is always good to show people their pictures on the camera screen and if possible to print copies and take them back to the although this can be difficult due to one's schedule or because it can be hard to find the people again.

The portraits featured in this post were taken over five days in January this year. I printed copies and was able to distribute some of them. I plan to continue this project and to capture the stories of some of Yangon's people during my next visit.


You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

And to close, some more citizens of Yangon...

Rakhine woman, fruit vendor outside Indian Bazaar
Buddhist nun, 18th Street
Vendor, 17th Street
Alone and watching the world go by, 17th Street
Just me and my phone, porter in 17th Street
Ponderous look, 38th Street
Preoccuiped smoker, Merchant Road
Mister Ayoob, merchant in 41st Street
Time for a rest, 17th Street
Confidence, Innsein township, Yangon suburb 

Friday, 24 January 2020

Exploring the lanes of Mawlamyine

Mawlamyine is one of Myanmar's larger cities with a population of around 300,000 people. It was chosen by the British as the first capital of colonial Burma, a status it held between 1826 and 1852 and became an important centre for commerce in the late part of the 20th century. This was in large part due to the arrival significant numbers of Indian merchants and workers. By the late 1880's, they had formed the largest ethnic group in the city living and working alongside Burmans, Chinese, Malays, Armenians and even a handful of Jewish merchants. 

Preparing a new well, lanes of Mawlamyine
During the colonial period, the city was called Moulmein and gained mention in the writings of both George Orwell in Shooting An Elephant and Rudyard Kipling in his poem Mandalay. The streets are lined with some very fine examples of architecture dating from that period although much of it is now crumbling. There are also many buildings that show the strong influence of Indian design, particularly those with wooden facades carved in intricate patterns and of course in the numerous mosques and Hindu temples that can be found across the city.  There are also several important churches and pagodas including the spectacular hilltop Seindon Mibaya Kyaung which is under the care of a single, famously grumpy elderly monk. All of this should attract visitors in significant numbers but Mawlamyine does not receive the number of guests that other cities can boast. It is usually seen as a one or at most two nights stay over and a base for visiting other places. As regular readers may expect, I am about to disagree with this.

Indian influenced architecture
Red shutters, Seindon Mibaya Kyaung pagoda
Shop houses
The cosy, chaos of Mawlamyine's back lanes
I spent three days there and realised that this was not enough to see some of the big ticket items but more importantly to explore in detail the cramped, crowded, chaotic back lanes of the city or to exhaust the busy, sprawling markets. Hidden from the main streets and easily missed the lanes are noisy, dirty and sometimes hazardous to walk in yet I was drawn back to them several times. In these hidden alleyways life has not much changed in a hundred years and a warm welcome is given to those who venture into them. Living conditions are challenging and many of the homes have problems with accessing electricity and a regular clean water supply. Many people use the open wells that are scattered around the city, drawing water to wash clothes or to clean the home despite the fact that some of them contain rubbish and in some cases free roaming chickens, ducks and other fowl deposit their droppings in them. New wells are established to serve the demand for water. I witnessed several workers detailed on this work including the one pictured at the top of this post.

Despite this, there is an easy atmosphere in here. People sit outside their houses talking to their friends and neighbours whilst their children play in the street. They are curious about visitors as not many venture off the main tourist trail of churches, temples, mosques and pagodas. It is amazing how much goodwill a simple "Mingalabar" (hello in Myanmar) can win for you and how quickly it will be followed up with questions about where you come from, what your work is and where are your family. This is often accompanied by offers of tea or snacks, reminding me of the warmth of the people living in the lanes of North Kolkata.

Abdul and his grandson
Waiting for the tutor
The gang, back lane, Mawlamyine
In one of the lanes I noticed an elderly man crouched on the floor and using a hammer to work on a sheet of metal. Abdul is 87 years old. In fact it happened to be his birthday on the day I met him. He is a little deaf and one of his daughters came across to help us communicate. Despite being retired, Abdul likes to keep busy and he makes metal boxes to earn a little money. He confessed that he has few customers these days but he still enjoys working. His daughter was holding one of his grandchildren. I asked him how many he had. He wasn't sure and said  "I have grandchildren and great grandchildren. About 20 I think". He stood for a picture, proudly holding one of the twenty.

In the same alley I noticed three small children looking down from a first floor balcony. Others were arriving at the building carrying satchels and books. It was too late in the afternoon for them to be going to school and I asked a woman standing outside the building what was happening. She explained that children came here after school for private tuition. Competition for jobs is very tough in Myanmar and parents who can afford it send their children to these places in order to improve their chances. Many children do not get the chance to complete their formal education as the family needs them to work and help pay for food and a place to live. How humbling that parents in one of Mawlamyine's poorest neighbourhoods had prioritised education and the hope of a better future. At the same time other, poorly dressed children played in the alley amongst bags of cement. We sometimes forget how fortunate we are.

A little further on I met U Aung Khaing, also 87 years old. He was born in Kayin state but is from the Mon ethnic group, once rulers of a mighty empire and the predominant group in Mon State of which Mawlamyine is a part. They are now numerically in decline, to some extent due to inter-marriage with other groups. The Mon language is also in danger and work is being done in local schools to preserve it. Each ethnic group in Myanmar has its own customs and dress and U Aung Khaing was wearing the red lungyi of the Mon.

U Aung Khaing
Maulana in a Pashtun cap
As in India, drinking tea is a bit of a national pastime in Myanmar and there are teashops on every corner. I met Maulana sitting outside of of one of them. I was struck by his appearance, particularly by his wearing of a Pashtun cap, usually associated with Afghanistan and Pakistan and an unusual sight in Myanmar. I was keen to photograph him and was a little surprised when he immediately and enthusiastically agreed. He told me that he understands Urdu as well as Myanmar and invited me to sit and take tea for a while. A woman wearing the hijab sat at the next table and helped translate for us. I realised that she was his wife. It would be interesting to know more about their story.

In another lane I spotted a small shop with two sides open to the street. The customers were mainly elderly Chinese men. Myanmar has a significant Chinese minority and Yangon has a vibrant Chinatown. I stopped to talk to the two old men sitting in a corner facing the street and asked them if the tea was good. They told me that it was and that it was the best tea shop in Mawlamyine. I asked if they come every day and one of them confirmed that he did. I also asked about the name of the shop but was told it is nameless. A few minutes later his friend told me that the man who came every day was the owner. That might explain the regularity of his visits and the claim to it being the best tea shop in town. I haven't tried them all so I can't say.

As well as the ubiquitous tea shops, the city streets are filled with vendors offering various delights. In the lanes I came across a man selling tamarind from two containers held together on a yoke, allowing him to operate a "mobile" service and a woman selling thick, sticky jams from a street corner stall. And then there are the city's two large markets offer fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, huge bags of rice and salt, spices, household goods, electrical items.clothes, children's toys and more. Most of the vendors and shoppers are women. Shopping is a serious business here and it is educational to stand back and watch the expert hagglers reduce the price of a cauliflower using perfectly honed methods - cajoling, scowling, smiling and pretending to walk away before the deal is secured.

The best teashop in town?
The tamarind seller
Street corner jam vendor
Shopping is a serious business
In the Lower Market, I met the utterly charming Tin Ohn. Aged 67, he was born in Hpa An but his family fled to Mawlamyine when he was a child due to a period of inter-communal strife. He has never married and used the English word "Batchelor" to describe himself and also his two sisters who share a home with him. He is one of seven siblings, three of whom have already died. He spoke affectionately about his school days when he studied at an English medium Catholic school. He recalled the priests being strict disciplinarians "to drop litter was a very serious matter, we even had to be careful with the shavings from sharpening our pencils. Not like today". He especially remembered Father Francis who he said was a very good teacher. Tin makes his living by selling metal boxes but says that business is not so good these days. The family originally came from India but he does not know exactly where. His Indian name is Nadul Chowdhury which may (or may not) indicate that they came from Bengal.

I thought about this conversation a little later the same day. Away from the markets and the lanes and whilst admiring the city's largest mosque, I saw a small boy eating pieces of fruit from a plastic bag whilst maintaining a serious expression. "What are you eating" my friend asked him. "Pineapple" he replied. "Sour or sweet" we asked. "Sour. I like sour" he said. "Why aren't you at school?" I asked him. "I don't live here. I'm visiting" he replied. "Does your teacher know?" I asked. "No" he said and laughed. I felt sure Father Francis would not have approved.

Tin Ohn
The pineapple boy
A welcome smile
I look forward to returning to Mawlamyine before too long, to spend more time in the lanes and the markets, to test the theory of the best tea shop, to admire the eclectic architecture and to hear more stories of its friendly citizens. And perhaps to again meet the lovely friendly lady pictured above, one of the first people I met on arrival in the city and who welcomed me with her wonderful smile.


You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.